Friday, April 5, 2013

Victor/Victoria in 1807?

Marissa has generously shared so many of her fashion prints with us that it’s easy to start drooling over the sumptuous gowns from the nineteenth century.  But apparently there were occasions when a lady made another choice.  This week, I ran across an editorial piece from La Belle Assemblée, that ladies magazine extraordinaire, dated April 1807.  The gentleman of the article is more than a little put out that some ladies were, GASP, adopting the clothing of gentlemen!

Now, I realize the writer is coming from a nineteenth century ethic, which often held that women should be in one sphere and men another.  And it’s not as if I can approach him to argue more than 200 years later.  But I did find his assertions . . . interesting, and I couldn't help mounting an argument as if I were to meet him at a soiree.
“The object of dress is undoubtedly to please . . . If women appear pleasing in the eyes of the other sex, it is because they are women; nobody, I presume, will dispute this principle.”

Certainly I won’t argue that point, sir.

“The attraction, therefore, consists, in the difference of sex; consequently, that must be the most voluptuous dress which displays this difference in the most striking manner. Establish a similarity of dress between the two sexes, confound their costume, and you destroy, in the eyes of men, the charm which captivates them.”

Indeed.  So I should expect your quizzing glass aimed at one location only when approaching a lady?  And where would you expect a lady to look when approaching a gentleman?  Ah, but you appear to have other objections.  Pray, let's hear them.

“The dress of women should differ in every point from that of men. This difference ought even to extend to the choice of stuffs; for a woman habited in cloth is less feminine than if she were clothed in transparent gauze, in light muslin, or in soft and shining silk.”

Yes, but you try wearing transparent gauze in England in the winter.  One word:  Brrr. 

“What woman is there but would please us more in an elegant robe than in one of those massive riding dresses, which produce such a bad effect, especially on women who are not tall, and have rather too much embonpoint.”

I fear I neglected to bring Dr. Johnson's dictionary with me.  Embonpoint?  Ah, stoutness.  Yes, pity about that.  One would never find a short, stout fellow in a riding coat.  By the by, have your seen His Highness recently?
“It is true that it is not always the desire of pleasing that induces women to adopt a disguise which, under every circumstance, is so ill adapted to them. The love of change, of novelty, and sill more the desire of unlimited liberty, these are the motives that lead them to sacrifice cheerfully the graces of their sex, in order to obtain a small portion of what they term the felicity of ours; for, it should be observed, by the way, that women think the enjoyment of perfect liberty the greatest of earthly blessings.”

Oh, how silly of us, to be sure!  I’m certain any gentleman would be more than glad to give up his liberty.   But do go on, sir.  You have me all a-gog.

“Perhaps women have gained nothing by adopting shoes as flat as those of men, which give them a firm and bold step, not exactly adapted to their sex. God forbid that I should wish to revive those heels of such extravagant and ridiculous height; but were there a greater contrast between women’s shoes and ours, the former would appear the handsomer for it.”

I see.  You'd advise me to attempt a country dance in high heels.  How very entertaining.  I'd be delighted to offer you a pair as well, but I doubt you'd be man enough to wear them.  But I will take the direction of your tailor.  If he can dress a fellow of your exacting expectations, I'm certain he'd do well for me.


Kleidung um 1800 said...

How amazing, I actually ran across a similar article in the August 1806 issue of the German "Journal des Luxus und der Moden" about men's fashion, which was worn by women.
If it's reported in two different early 19th century journals, it might be not as uncommon as we've usually thought.
There's a sidenote to the article in the above mentioned text telling the reader, that " was even more important for Paris as for any other city, as there's a great number of woman, who against the police's decree, often or always wear men's clothes..."


Regina Scott said...

How interesting, Sabine! Thank you for letting us know. The article I quoted from talked about a woman who was in the French army openly, but was told basically to go home and cook. She appealed, and her commanding officers reported that she was an excellent soldier, so she was allowed to stay. I have heard that women fought in the revolution in France and didn't much like it when after the revolution they were ordered to return to smaller roles. Perhaps those are the ones in Paris who are insisting on wearing men's clothes.

QNPoohBear said...

These descriptions are fascinating. There are several things going on here:
1. women should be passive objects to look at and nothing more
(see also the Great Awakening)

2. hysterical fear that patriarchy would be overthrown - see also women in the French revolution. I've seen engravings of female sans-culottes and read backlash against them. There's even a French law banning women from wearing pants in public that dates to 1799. In 1807, there was probably real fear that the French radical women would influence English women. Also, Mary Woolstonecraft had only been dead 10 years.

Please tell my professors I deserve extra credit like a free pass to graduation for that analysis!

Regina Scott said...

I'd be delighted to tell your professors, QNPoohBear! I think you deserve it.

The hysterical fear is spot on. The essay ended with a plea not to take on manly clothing unless they were willing to take on everything that went with being a man (implying honor, hard work, responsibility). Gosh, I don't know any women who embody those traits. ;-)